These days, it might seem challenging to maintain a sunny outlook on life. We are still coping with the pandemic, and many people are struggling with the social and financial results.
But it’s important to know that having a positive attitude can have a positive effect on our well-being. Optimism is worth the effort! What is optimism, exactly? Experts from Boston University School of Medicine define it as “a general expectation that good things will happen, or believing that the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes.”
Many studies show the benefits of a positive attitude:
- People who are optimistic are more likely to practice healthy behaviors, such as eating a nutritious diet, getting enough exercise, and avoiding substance misuse.
- Optimistic people are more likely to have a network of social connections, which is so important for both emotional and physical health.
- Optimism is linked with longevity. People with a positive attitude are more likely to live to age 85 or longer, say the Boston University experts.
- Optimism helps us control our stress level by reducing harmful hormones that lead to inflammation.
- Optimists are more likely to have a good outcome after illness, injury or surgery.
Is optimism an inborn trait?
Psychologists surmise that certain people are more prone to optimism—or to its opposite, pessimism. We all know people who are jolly and upbeat most of the time—and others who are more the Eeyore type. But the experts also offer tips to nurture a more upbeat attitude about life, even as we grow older, when that might be a little harder:
Cultivate optimism. Experts say pessimism is a habit we can unlearn, consciously shifting our thinking from glass-half-empty to glass-half-full. Says Dr. Alan Rozanski of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, “No one size fits all in treating pessimism, but various promising approaches have been identified, including teaching pessimistic patients better coping skills and helping them to learn how to recognize automatic pessimistic thoughts, which then can be challenged through reframing techniques, a commonly employed strategy in cognitive behavioral therapy.”
Practice mindfulness. “Mindfulness refers to the natural human ability to be aware of one’s experiences and to pay attention to the present moment in a purposeful, receptive, and non-judgmental way,” say behavioral scientists from Flinders University in Australia. “Using mindful techniques can be instrumental in reducing stress and promoting positive psychological outcomes.” Experts say meditation, yoga and tai chi are especially effective for older adults.
Evaluate your social media consumption. Social media can be a mixed bag for the emotional health of older adults. It can keep older users connected with family and friends, and provide mental stimulation. On the other hand, spending a lot of time on social media can raise our anxiety level. Social media platforms keep track of the posts we show interest in, then feed us more of the same—and fear can draw our attention, guaranteeing we’ll see one anxiety-provoking item after another! Scroll past those items to news of family and friends—or maybe it’s time for a social media “vacation.”
Smile! A second Australian study gives us more reason to put on a happy face! According to Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos of the University of South Australia, “The act of smiling can trick your mind into being more positive, simply by moving your facial muscles.” Smiling stimulates the emotional center of the brain, which emits brain chemicals that induce a more positive emotional state. A “fake it ‘til you make it” approach could be effective, Dr. Marmolejo-Rosas says.
Find ways to make a difference. Pessimism often springs from a sense of helplessness—a feeling that we have no influence upon what happens in the world. Serving as a volunteer is a great way to turn that around! Many studies show that volunteer service improves the outlook of older adults. Sadly, many of our traditional volunteer jobs are temporarily unavailable because of the pandemic—but other opportunities have taken their place, such as online tutoring. “Now might be a particular moment in history when society needs your service the most,” said Harvard University researcher Dr. Eric S. Kim. “If you are able to do so while abiding by health guidelines, you not only can help to heal and repair the world, but you can help yourself as well.”
Finally, examine your attitude about aging. It makes sense that our attitude about growing older is intertwined with our overall outlook, because for most of us, aging is our future! Examine, and discard, all those stereotypes that can make us pessimistic about growing older. A January 2021 study from Oregon State University found that “a major factor in how people see their own aging selves is internalizing ageist stereotypes.” Instead, the study authors said, “If you believe you are capable of becoming the healthy, engaged person you want to be in old age, you are much more likely to experience that outcome.”
Cultivating a positive attitude not only raises our odds of staying healthy longer, but also provides us with the resilience to face the challenges of our later years. After all, “healthy aging” doesn’t mean avoiding all the almost inevitable health problems and losses that we may deal with. Instead, it means addressing these challenges so we can continue to do our best to live life to the fullest.